IT WOULD SEEM LIKE A VERY HARD phone call to make, the ultimate good news/bad news story. When Eden Full called her parents one afternoon in May 2011, she had a huge achievement to announce — and a real kicker to go with it.
The good news? Full, then a sophomore, just had been awarded $100,000 by the Thiel Foundation, which would enable her to develop an invention that could bring cheap solar energy and clean water to the Third World.
The bad news? The award came with one large string attached: Full had to drop out of college.
Her parents, in Calgary, were supportive, if apprehensive. “Neither of them went to college,” explains Full, a second-generation Chinese immigrant, “and having me finish was a big deal.” So Full attached a condition of her own: She would return to Princeton once her two-year fellowship was over.
When Full — then ’13 and now ’15 — keeps that promise and returns to campus in September, she will be a junior with an unusually deep reservoir of experience. She has founded a business, applied for a patent, traveled the world, and, incidentally, rowed with the Canadian national team. It is a big résumé for the socially minded entrepreneur and coxswain who stands just 4-foot-11.
The Thiel Fellowships were created in 2010 by Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook, whose foundation (as Thiel’s mission statement puts it) “defends and promotes freedom in all its dimensions, political, personal, and economic.” Full was one of 20 entrepreneurs in the inaugural class. Although Thiel himself has multiple degrees from Stanford, he has embraced Mark Twain’s motto that “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Many young entrepreneurs, Thiel believes, are wasting their time in higher education and would be better off developing their ideas in the real world. His foundation enables students under the age of 20 to do just that — on the condition that they drop out, although they can take a few classes if necessary for their projects and they are free to return to school when their two-year fellowships are complete.
FULL, WHO SEEMS TO BE EXACTLY THE SORT OF young entrepreneur Thiel had in mind, was already an accomplished inventor before she entered college. Growing up in Alberta (she speaks fluent Cantonese but peppers her English with broad Canadian “O”s), she built a solar-powered toy car when she was 10. A few years later, while still in high school, she began designing a device, named the SunSaluter, that enables solar panels to follow the movement of the sun. When she unveiled it at an international science fair, an Indonesian girl remarked how useful such a device would be in rural villages.
“It really got me thinking,” Full recalls. “[I thought], ‘What am I doing sitting here just making this a science experiment when this could actually be something?’” The project became such an obsession that her parents sometimes let her call in sick to school so she could work on it.
The SunSaluter provides a cheap and simple solution to a real problem in many parts of the Third World, where solar power is one of the only practical ways to generate electricity. Because solar panels are stationary while the sun’s position in the sky changes, they only achieve maximum efficiency during the few hours when the two are aligned. By mechanically moving the panels to follow the sun’s progress, Full’s device can increase energy output by as much as 40 percent. Motorized panels do exist, but they can be prohibitively expensive and require a lot of power; the SunSaluter, by comparison, is made of bamboo and metal, costs about $20 to make, and can generate enough electricity to charge a lantern, two cellphones, or a 12-volt battery.
After spending the summer studying climate change in the Canadian Arctic, Full entered Princeton in September 2009 and took a course with Professor Winston Wole Soboyejo on science, technology, and African development. Soboyejo — who has research interests in alternative-energy systems and affordable infrastructure, among other things — served as her adviser as she worked to design sustainable metal buildings through the University’s Engineering Projects in Community Service program. Then, with support from the Princeton Grand Challenges program, Full spent three weeks in Kenya the following summer testing SunSaluter prototypes.
It was on this trip that she got a harsh lesson in the practical applications of technology. A woman in one of the villages told Full that she had three lanterns but only enough electrical power to charge two of them at a time. Full offered to build a SunSaluter and went to a nearby village to buy parts. While she was gone, the woman was trampled by a water buffalo as she searched for firewood in the dark.
“That experience helped me realize that the work I was doing could very tangibly and immediately change someone’s life,” Full recalls. “I think that experience gave me the motivation I needed to take some time off to work on something that mattered to me.”